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The Art and Science of Charcoal Burning
The Art and Science of Charcoal Burning

Cross section of a boksa

In contrast to coal, which is mined, charcoal is produced by burning, i.e., charring wood, hence the name.  And there is a definite procedure that must be followed to achieve the best finished product.

Charcoal was essential for the production of sulphur-free iron, and therefore its early production was centered around iron works.  In the Carpathian Basin, its importance increased with the development of industry in the 19th century.  Then it was used by tinsmiths, plumbers and locksmiths.  Once factories began to mass produce finer textiles – fine linen (cambric), bookbinder’s buckram and chiffon, which were no longer smoothed with a mangle – the women began to use clothes-irons, which in those days required charcoal.

Today, charcoal has made a comeback, being used mostly for backyard grills.

Best suited for charcoal-burning are beech wood, hornbeam (a type of birch tree), ash tree and oak.  These are cut into 3-4 foot logs.  Then, on a flat area, with the thicker logs placed in the middle, these are set up vertically, in three layers, the top layer leaning towards the center, and forming a round, nine to ten-foot mound called a boksa.  Then the whole mound is covered with a couple of inches of dry birch leaves, and some 10 inches of forest loam (avar) or dirt.  At the top and about three feet from the top, a number of venting holes are made. 

Then the boksa is lit through a horizontal opening.  Smoke and steam from the center of the boksa escape through the air vents.  Once sparks come through, the air vents are covered with wood and dirt.

During the burning process, which takes 14-16 days for a larger mound, 10-12 days for a smaller one, the boksa is constantly beaten or trampled (although this is a more dangerous way) to prevent the forming of cavities inside.  Often the person tending the boksa will climb a ladder to beat the outside, rather than risk breaking through the crust and falling into the smouldering insides.

Usually two people would tend each boksa, and would build a very primitive hut for themselves nearby, since the boksa had to be watched and cared for the entire time.

Once the boksa is burned out, it is left to rest for a day.  Then a rake is used to remove the dirt and weeds from the top.  The charcoal is then pulled out with a hook or iron fork, the dust is removed, and gathered into piles.  The charcoal burners of the Bakony Mountains say that well burned charcoal ”sounds like a bell”, while those from Transylvania describe it as ringing like a piece of pottery.

The charcoal is then bagged and taken for sale, and some is even exported.  In addition to grilling these days, it is also used to make gunpowder.

In Farkaslaka, Transylvania, where burning charcoal is an important source of income, they have an annual charcoal festival called Szenes Napok, celebrated for the 17th time at the beginning of September this year.  It was a three-day affair, with concerts, foot races, soccer games, wood cutting competition, folk dance performances and, of course, the lighting of a boksa.

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